Butter Chicken My Dad's Way

Save the Delhi: Bhide keeps family traditions alive.
Darrow Montgomery

The prep work always began on Thursday night. It was 1980, we lived in the Middle East, and Thursday was the start of the weekend. I’d huddle with Dad in our small galley-style kitchen as he began making butter chicken: a glorious dish of chicken pieces marinated in yogurt, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, and garlic, oven-roasted and cooked in a sinful, creamy butter and tomato sauce.

“The first thing is the chicken,” he would say. “If the chicken is not of good quality, you can forget the dish. The frozen chicken on the market is no good.” Working closely with his butcher—my father still has a closer relationship with his meat vendors than most people have with their doctors—he would pick out the best chicken and have it chopped up his way.

Dad began the marinade in a bowl filled with dollops of homemade yogurt in which he swirled his long, slender fingers to gently whip it. “Yogurt is the key. It tenderizes the chicken, it makes it soft; people forget that,” he said.

My father is an engineer by trade. When we were kids, he traveled constantly and was often gone for long periods of time. After spending my days at school, I’d wait for his return, rather irrationally, by the large windows of our cozy family room each night.

When he finally came home—from Beirut, Dubai, Alabama, Delhi, London, Kuwait, or Paris—he brought gifts of unusual foods like peanut butter, baked beans with bacon, Lindt chocolates, and dates stuffed with pistachios. But whenever he asked “What would you like to eat this weekend?” the answer was always the same: butter chicken.

After the yogurt came tablespoons of melted ghee and a large squeeze of lemon juice. Then a slathering of pureed tomatoes. “This is the real butter chicken,” he’d say. “I can tell you it tastes like the one from Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. Did I ever tell you that this where this dish originated? Yes, the dal, the chicken, and the naan at Moti Mahal. I loved it. I will take you there when we are in Delhi next. We can eat and sit outside in the lawns and listen to beautiful ghazals.”

As the memories of Moti Mahal filled his mind, he would begin to recite poetry by Indian legends. I understood nothing, and yet his soothing, deep voice kept me entranced as he sang and cut slits into the chicken so the marinade would be absorbed. Then he added the chicken to the marinade, rubbing it until it seemed as though the chicken was born with the mixture on. The chicken needed to marinate overnight. And I needed to go to bed.

The next morning, I would be up with him at 8, ready to go to the market to buy tomatoes for the curry. Years later, when he visited me in the States, he was appalled I went to the grocery store once a week. “You buy tomatoes now for use on Friday? They won’t be fresh! What is the point?”

One time, after returning from London, Dad did not stop talking about chicken tikka masala—a British version of butter chicken. “It had onions! Who puts onions in butter chicken?…I found out that it was originally created using a can of tomato soup? Soup in making butter chicken? Who does that?” The rant took several years to die down.

His messy hands reached out to the spice cabinet for the treasures that made the dish sparkle. “Smell this methi, child, here smell,” he said. “When I was a kid, my mother would make it and it made the whole kitchen smell like paradise. Moti Mahal did not add this to their chicken dish. They should have.” I leaned over and pretended to smell the dried herb, all the while reveling in the precious time with my father.

He’d place the chicken pieces single file on a foil-lined sheet to roast in the oven as we began preparing the sauce. And then he would fish out his ancient grinder. He would make me smell the pungent ginger and laugh as I scrunched my long nose at the garlic. Both went in with fiery green chilies into the blender to make the paste.

Now it was time to cook. Butter would go into a really hot kadai, a large steel wok-shaped pot, as he would regale me with stories of his college days or how he agreed to marry mom without even seeing her first. In went the paste and the fresh tomatoes. He would stir, pause, analyze, stir and use the back of his spoon to mash the tomatoes. And then, he stopped and pulled the roasted chicken from the oven.

“Now is the secret nobody knows.” He pointed to the pan. “This marinade has all the flavors from the spices and the chicken. This is what makes the masala real.” He tilted the the marinade into the wok. I watched him smile, frown, and finally look at peace as the oil relented and the tomatoes slid down the sides of the wok. Then he added the chicken and cooked it until all the flavors melded.

My job came at the end. I gently cut the side of a plastic pouch of heavy cream and poured it into the chicken. The dish was complete. And it was time to invite everyone to eat.

One day years later, my son asked me to make butter chicken for him. Reluctantly, I did. He tasted it and declared, “It is really good, Mom, but his is better.” Ah, the relief I felt. My childhood favorite was still my own.

I still needed my dad to show me how to make it.

Butter Chicken

Serves 4–5

Prep Time: 15 minutes and a couple of hours to marinate

Cook Time: 1 hour total

This is my adapted version of my father’s fabulous dish. Serve this with hot, steamed rice or Indian breads like naan.

For the chicken:

  • 1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon peeled, minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons Indian tandoori masala (I recommend Shan brand)
  • ¼ cup tomato puree, canned
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter or ghee
  • 8 skinless bone-in chicken thighs, (make slits in the chicken to allow the marinade to penetrate)
  • Table salt to taste

For the sauce:

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon peeled, minced garlic
  • 2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1 serrano pepper, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • Table salt to taste

1. In a large bowl, mix together the yogurt, ginger, garlic, Indian tandoori masala, tomato puree, salt, lemon juice, and butter. Add the chicken and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 400º. Place the chicken in a single layer in a roasting pan. Pour all remaining marinade over the chicken. Roast 20-30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the juices run clear.

3. Remove the chicken from the oven, and place all the pieces on a platter. Reserve the cooked marinade in a bowl.

4. In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the ginger and the garlic. Sauté for about 30 seconds.

5. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring constantly. Use the back of your spatula to mash the tomatoes as you go. Continue until the tomatoes are completely mashed and soft, about 10 minutes.

6. Add the marinade you reserved earlier.

7. Add the salt, pepper, fenugreek leaves, and chicken, and mix well. Simmer covered for about 10 minutes.

8. Add the cream and simmer for another minute. Serve hot.

Adapted from The Everything Indian Cookbook by Monica Bhide, © 2004. Monica Bhide is the author of several Indian cookbooks; her work can be found at monicabhide.com.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Our Readers Say

This looks and sounds yummy... I am going to try it one day, and then I will tell you how I did. Or we can ask Luis to tell us both. :-)
Your food story is charming and delicious. You should submit it for publication or at least to egullet.org. You would get a wonderful response from their readers.

I found your article by writing the question in Google "Why does butter chicken taste like canned tomato soup?" . I dislike the flavour of canned tomato soup and hence I have always disliked the taste of butter chicken that I eat in restaurants. I will use your father's recipe very soon.

Heston Blumenthal in his series In Search of Perfection went to the Moti Mahal restaurant to have butter chicken and reported that it tasted of canned tomato soup, so perhaps they are still using it.

Thank you again for your delightful story. I love it and know I will love the butter chicken.

What a wonderful story! I do love butter chicken too. I've always wanted to make it properly myself. This is such a wonderful way to learn how to make it and connect it with a meaningful story. Thanks for sharing your story and receipe. This is really what food is about. Stories, process, and of course, eating. :)
Lovely--I meant to comment after I tweeted it the other day, but life got in the way!

I felt like I could hear your dad's voice as you told the tale...I look forward to making this for the home crowd here..

It is funny how a great new favorite can be born from us being feocrd to use our creativity. They look delicious! Thanks for coming by to share your recipe at These Chicks Cooked Recipe Spotlight. Have a great weekend!Katie

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.